readings: a first approach

A big part of what makes a WONDERFEAST on-site art history seminar special is that the learning happens on multiple levels. In addition to steeping ourselves in the history, culture, and art of imperial Rome and of the Roman High Renaissance and Baroque periods for Patrons, Artists, and Private Palazzi, we’ll also engage with texts – general audience and scholarly – to enhance our exploration of this fascinating period.

Below is a collection of titles that I thought you might find interesting. Their subject matter is Italy or Rome and ranges from surveys of the idiosyncrasies of the national psyche, to the dark underside of political corruption and the mafia, to histories of the country, the papacy, and the city of Rome. The titles can be found on Amazon or probably even through your local bookstore or library.

La Bella Figura, Beppe Severgnini. A great place to start for a deliciously tongue-in-cheek exploration of the Italian mind and Italian customs. Deconstructing the myth of la dolce vita, Severgnini instead insists on showing us Italia – warts and all. Fantastically fun, it helps to better understand the only nation ‘capable of producing both Botticelli and Berlusconi.’

A Concise History of Italy, Christopher Duggan. The title is spot-on: Duggan manages to pack a great deal of complicated history into this small volume in the best tradition of British scholarship. Interestingly, since the book’s main topic is Italy, and Italy as a united country didn’t exist between the fall of Rome and the 19th century, the chapters on the in-between centuries of fragmentation are rather brief. Nevertheless, Duggan does leave his reader with a solid understanding of the history of this complex and often embattled nation.

Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic, Alexander Stille. Stille, an author and journalist, is the son of a prominent Italian newspaper editor. In 1996, he published Excellent Cadavers, about the assassinations of Sicilian anti-mafia judges, Falcone and Borsellino, and the subsequent investigations into the corruption of high-ranking politicians which brought the government down. Stille’s more recent work, The Sack of Rome: Media + Money + Celebrity = Power = Silvio Berlusconi, of 2007, details how the ex-prime minister was able to exploit the system to rise to the top and undo the work done during the optimistic ‘Clean Hands’ years following the Borsellino and Falcone killings.

Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, Robert Hughes. If the history of Italy is complicated, then that of its capital, Rome, is simply baffling in its complexity. Yet Hughes manages to make sense of it all, never leaving out the contradictions and giving us both detached analyses and personal assessments of the Eternal City’s rich past.

The Eternal City: A History of Rome, Ferdinand Addis. The author breaks the almost three thousand years of Rome’s complicated history into chapters each focusing on a noteworthy event or family or person who left an indelible mark. It’s a fascinating read that feels more like a series of short stories than a long slog and leaves you with a rich understanding of each time period thanks to beautiful prose characterized by engagingly detailed descriptions.

Saints and Sinners: A History of The Popes, Eamon Duffy. Popular history at its best. In his book (now in an updated third edition that includes the papacy of Benedict XVI), Duffy describes both the individual personalities behind each papacy as well as the doctrine underlying this complex political entity.

Also, let’s not forget the joy of viewing materials, aka films. A 2011 article by John Hooper of The Guardian lists the ten best film about Rome here. To it, I would add another two films directed by contemporary Italian filmmakers: Nanni Moretti’s, Caro Diario and the 2014 Academy Awards Best Foreign Film winner, La Grande Bellezza, by Paolo Sorrentino: a paean to the terrible beauty and stagnation of Rome. Buona visione! (Happy viewing!)